UK Politics

Is it wrong for MPs to use mobiles in the Commons?

MPs using phones

Eyebrows have been raised by pictures showing several MPs using their smartphones during Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell's Autumn Statement speech. But is this unparliamentary - or even bad manners - these days?

It was John McDonnell's big day. The shadow chancellor stood at the House of Commons despatch box at 13.20 GMT to coruscate Philip Hammond over his Autumn Statement.

Labour MPs were rapt as he did so. Some by his oratory; others, it seems, by the electronic devices in their hands. As the picture above shows, quite a few MPs, even some of his front bench colleagues, used their smartphones while he spoke.

As the next picture shows, the activity was not confined to one side, Business Secretary Greg Clark looking at his while Mr Hammond answered questions.

And even Mr McDonnell himself was distracted at one point by a mobile phone held by his shadow Treasury team colleague Jonathan Reynolds.

Image caption John McDonnell looked at his colleague Jonathan Reynolds' phone, while Diane Abbott held hers

Speaker John Bercow has previously warned MPs not to "fiddle" with their phones "ostentatiously" and suggested they go outside if they really can't resist the temptation.

But is it right that this has to be spelt out in one of the world's premier debating chambers, where argument is supposed to be of paramount importance? Where Gladstone and Disraeli were supreme, where Churchill guided a nation through its most challenging times?

Well, since 2007, Commons rules have stated that MPs can use mobiles "to keep up to date with emails... provided that it causes no disturbance".

It sounds like a quaint provision today. Times have changed, as the Commons Procedure Committee notes: "There are many new devices, including portable 'tablet' computers such as iPads or smartphones, which were not known to the Modernisation Committee which drew up the report which led to the House's resolution.

"There are also new uses of technology, for example Twitter, which were similarly unknown but on which the Speaker and the Chair of any committee may be expected to rule, using the existing resolution as a guideline."

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Media captionMPs were seen using their phones during John McDonnell's speech in the House of Commons.

Conservative MP Nigel Mills issued an apology in 2014 for playing the mobile puzzle game Candy Crush Saga during a Commons committee hearing.

Generally, though, tweeting from inside the chamber is seen as acceptable.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Lindsay Hoyle is worried that people will stop talking altogether one day

Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle told BBC 5 live: "The world moves on. But it's not about being obvious, is it? It's about ensuring that you be discreet."

If he thought an MP was tapping away and staring downwards a little too noticeably, he would give them "a nudge", rather than shout across the chamber, he said.

Mr Hoyle added: "People want to stay in touch with the outside world now. They want to tell them what's going on. It's about keeping the balance right....

"Everything moves on, as we know, in this world. When people talk to each other through a device without even speaking, you've got to wonder where does society end up. I hope we don't lose the ability to talk to each other."

Mr Hoyle also acknowledged that the guilty verdict following the trial of Thomas Mair for murdering Labour MP Jo Cox had come through about an hour before Mr McDonnell began speaking, meaning there was more focus on news sites and social media than usual.

But the rules are stronger in some other countries, irrespective of circumstance. In Greece, electronic devices are banned from the plenary hall, while the Finnish chamber prohibits the use of laptops.

Image caption David Cameron is no longer bound by Parliament's rules

In the US, Congress has a rule stating: "A person on the floor of the House may not smoke or use a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum."

Mr McDonnell, when asked about the Autumn Statement scenes, told Sky News: "What they do now in the Commons, and I'm not sure how this goes down with the general public, is that a lot of them will be tweeting their comments out about what's being said and they'll be responding to tweets etc.

"It's changed the nature of the chamber itself... It's happening consistently now and you see it on all political parties too,"

If answering emails is distracting, social media is more so.

Image caption Not so long ago: In 2001, Lib Dem Steve Webb became the first MP to allow constituents to contact him via text message

The Commons authorities recognise this: "As an example of a practice which could not have been predicted by the Modernisation Committee in 2007, tweeting could hardly be bettered."

The procedure committee says it would be "inconsistent" to allow tweeting from the gallery overlooking the Commons but ban it from inside the chamber.

But it urges MPs to "use their good sense and behave with courtesy, particularly in not tweeting messages which would be disorderly if said in the House".

At least they are showing themselves to be in touch with normal life.

Be thankful that none of them were gurning, thumbs up with arms around one another - selfies are a huge no-no, photography within the Palace of Westminster requiring prior permission.

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